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Nashville Predators @ Chicago Blackhawks Game 4 Preview: Turning Point

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Hunker down for the most important game of the year.

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Here we go. An unprecedented season for the Predators has now come to a pivotal Game 4 vs. the Blackhawks. It's not an elimination game, but it almost feels like one. If the Predators want to return home for Game 5 with home ice advantage, they will need to win this one.

Hmmm... What sort of history do the Preds have in the fourth game of a playoff series? Let's look:

  • 2012 vs. Coyotes, lost 1-0
  • 2012 vs. Red Wings, won 3-1
  • 2011 vs. Canucks, lost 4-2
  • 2011 vs. Ducks, lost 6-3
  • 2010 vs. Blackhawks, lost 3-0
  • 2008 vs. Red Wings, won 3-2
  • 2007 vs. Sharks, lost 3-2
  • 2006 vs. Sharks, lost 5-4
  • 2004 vs. Red Wings, won 3-0
Overall, a 3-6 playoff Game 4 record. And all of the wins came against the Detroit Red Wings. Who are we playing again? Oh, right. The Blackhawks. Well, this doesn't bode well. This could end up being the turning point in the series, so the Predators will need to give it everything they have to make sure it doesn't turn the wrong direction.

The Chicago Blackhawks

So obviously the story of the Blackhawks series so far is Scott Darling. In two games he has 77 saves on 79 shots for an absurd .975 save %. If he wasn't stonewalling my beloved Predators, I would say this was my favorite story of the playoffs... and it maybe still is. But there has to be more to this, right? I mean, the guy was cut from an SPHL team for a reason right? He has made some incredible saves in this series so far, but you have to think the gig is up eventually. At some point, players are who they are, even if they elevate their play in the playoffs. More on Scott Darling later.

The other story for the Hawks comes from Game 3 and the top line. Jonathan Toews, Brandon Saad, and Marian Hossa dismantled the Weber-less Preds on Sunday, combining for 5 points with Saad getting the game-winner. These three are playing outstanding hockey right now, and it's trickling down to the other lines. Even though the Preds may be "outplaying" the Hawks in the possession game, the Hawks offense is incredibly dangerous right now. Mostly because of shot quality. Simply put, the Hawks are scoring from more dangerous areas of the ice and producing more shots in those areas than the Preds.

Let's state the obvious about shot quality: the closer you are to the net, the higher your chance of scoring on a shot. That's pretty much all there is to it. The following shot quality chart from Rob Vollman's Hockey Abstract helps visualize this:

Shots off rebounds are also particularly dangerous, but basically all a dangerous shot needs to be is central and close to the net (within about 30 feet, the top of the circles). So let's take a look at a shot plot for the Hawks from game 3:

(red = goals, blue = shots on goal, black = shots not on goal, green = shots blocked. Larger letters indicate shots off rebounds)

The Hawks didn't have as many shots on net as the Preds, but most of their shots came from 20-30 feet from the net, and are more or less in the middle of the ice. All four goals were sent from particularly dangerous areas: within about 30 feet of the net and central. The least central of the goals was the Saad partial breakaway. Hardly any shots were sent from the blue-line.  Keep this chart in mind when looking at the Predators plot chart from game 3 below.

The Nashville Predators

Well, let's waste no time then... here's the Preds shot plot from game 3:

For the most part, the Preds' shots were much less dangerous than the Hawks'. More shots from the blue-line, more shots from outside 30 feet, more shots away from the center of the ice. Just look at the right-hand circle and the blue-line... Darling isn't Martin Brodeur or Patrick Roy, but he doesn't have to be to stop a flood of easy shots from low percentage angles and distances. This chart is a damn good explanation of how the Predators are making a guy like Darling look better than he probably is. And with every 45 foot shot that lands softly into his glove, the more confident this guy gets.

Part of this is also in how the Hawks defense is playing. Coach Q has them keeping the middle of the ice clear, pushing everything to the outside. Look at where the blocked shots are coming from. His defense is squatting down right in the middle of the most dangerous areas, preventing guys like Neal, Forsberg, Smith, and Wilson to get any room to rip off high percentage shots (side note: this is why we miss Mike Fisher and need him back like now). With the defense in front of Darling playing well, the Predators will need to find a way into the central areas of the offensive zone and rip off some shots that have a higher chance of scoring.

The Important Details

The biggest game of the year begins at 8:30 pm central and is televised on NBC Sports. 102.5 The Game for your audio.